Painter Tom Berenz on mounds and memory

The Milwaukee artist's work is on display through May 18 at the Watrous Gallery.
 

Detail from "Cake Flight" by Tom Berenz. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters.

Detail from "Cake Flight" by Tom Berenz. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters.

Tom Berenz's paintings embody primness and chaos all at once, marshaling semi-abstract shapes with a graphic designer's instinct for space and crisp coloration, but with a more traditional painter's knack for movement. The Milwaukee artist's show Towards The North, on display through May 18 at the Watrous Gallery on the third floor of the Overture Center, deals in playfully exploded shapes, from birthday cakes in "5th Birthday Cake" and "Cake Flight" to what appears to be an abandoned SpongeBob SquarePants toy in "Front Yard Thaw," but there's also something grim in the way Berenz tugs at the barrier between familiarity and abstraction, and in the textures he creates with a combination of acrylic paint, cut paper, and spraypaint. Berenz recently spoke with me by phone about the themes and techniques behind his work.

Tone Madison: Your paintings play with this idea of "mounds," which for you means piling together all these everyday objects. Where did that idea start for you, and how has it evolved?

Tom Berenz: I used to make paintings about disasters, natural depictions of disasters that were occurring across the country, and it was in response to sort of a smaller disaster happening in my own life. The lake that I grew up on has been in kind of a slow but severe drought, but instead of making paintings about my personal struggle with that landscape, I decided to see how other people were responding to other disasters around the country. But then there was a turning point where I started becoming interested in my personal story, my personal narrative, my present, my past, and I started seeing these mounds or piles as dealing with my own psyche or my psychology or thinking about the mounds of the way that I think, or a mirror of my mind.

They're sort of psychological landscapes, and the mound really references the sort of internal struggles that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. I think that's kind of the flip of what happened—me being interested in my own story but looking outward to deal with it, but now it's flipped inward, and instead of dealing with disaster as actual disaster, I'm thinking of disaster as a metaphor to discuss a lot of personal concerns.

Tone Madison: And in these paintings you're depicting everyday objects, but with colors and textures that maybe aren't everyday. Why is that?

Tom Berenz: I think it stems from a few different things. The current paintings are really mostly about the past and childhood and growing up, and some sort of darker stories. I think I just cover that up, as if I'm a comedian making a joke out of something very sad. I've made paintings about my mother's future death—she's still alive. A lot of paintings are about anxieties and fears, and they always seem to return to this landscape that I grew up on in Central Wisconsin, the lake I referred to earlier. But the palette is, one, covering it up to make it a little more accessible and to not have it be such a sad painting, and I'm interested in that contradiction of how something can be both really sad but bright and light and playful. But it's also referencing my interest in collage and color, so I'm interested in sort of children's collage and how that relates to some of my personal child narratives that I'm painting. The work looks a little graphic, and there's a lot of tape, and I'm trying to reference both children's collage and thinking about the history of painting, Matisse's cutouts and so on.

In terms of just pure formal concerns, the color palette excites me. It makes it an enjoyable process. I'm much more interested in how a color relates to another color than a lot of things. It's trying to both be conceptual concerns, along with formal concerns of color.

Tone Madison: Another thing that really struck me at this show is that when you're a bit farther away from one of your works, the individual shapes can look really neat and almost cut-paper-like, but as you get closer they get really messy and the edges of them blur. I mean, of course most things look messier close-up, but in your paintings that effect is really pronounced.

Tom Berenz: I think that's one of the things I struggle with, since I do use so much tape. It's like, how do I break that rigidity down? How does it become more organic, have more movement, and not so static? This is a painting, it's not this computer-generated vector print. I'm much more interested in the language of painting, how it references geometric abstraction, how it references landscape painting, how it references screenprinting and collage, how it can be a lot of different things, but not one absolute thing.

So yeah, from a distance these paintings or in reproduction, these paintings read as, yeah, very graphic, and then there's a reward for the viewer—they experience my investigation of materials, surface, edge quality, all things that I'm really, really interested in in terms of expanding the language of paintings.

Tone Madison: The person I went to the show with said that looking at the objects in your paintings is a bit like watching clouds.

Tom Berenz: Yes! [Laughs] For the most part, the shapes over the years have kind of gotten broken down and more and more edited and flattened out. Even though they might read as purely abstract, a lot of the shapes are referencing something, both in the color and in the shape.

Tone Madison: In this show, there are two paintings that riff on cake. What inspired you to do that?

Tom Berenz: The one I'll talk about first is the one that's pretty much an entire cake, titled "5th Birthday Cake." It's sort of a stand-in or a metaphor for how my brother kind of ruined my—I really struggled growing up with him as my brother, it was a constant battle—and it was just sort of a metaphor to reference how he ruined my childhood. And I say that in kind of a light way but kind of a serious way. Nothing necessarily happened at my 5th birthday. He didn't destroy my cake. But I was just thinking about how it was just a metaphor for him ruining a day or ruining an event, and that being my upbringing or my childhood. There's a painting not in the show that I just painted, and it's called "Cut," and it's about me cutting off his finger, which actually happened, but it was on accident and it was with an axe. I've been trying to think about how to paint that for like five years and I think I finally made a painting about it. So I have this long list of issues or of things that I want to discuss, but sometimes it just takes me a while to just figure out how that would look in a painting.

Tone Madison: So who screwed up whose childhood the most? [Laughs]

Tom Berenz: That's a good question. He was my older brother. He kicked the living shit out of me every day. I think he came out on top. But in the end, I think it made me who I am, and I'm really grateful for that. We're completely opposite. Everything he's interested in, I'm not interested in. I think it led me to a completely different path, which ultimately led me to become an artist. It was really important in my development. But I didn't feel that bad cutting his finger off.

Tone Madison: You've been making paintings in this style for several years now, so in this show in particular, was there any common thread you wanted to focus on?

Tom Berenz: [The title] Towards The North is referring to a few different things. One, it was referring to north of the location, so back to this landscape or the lake that I grew up on. A lot of my paintings have to do with death, and they all kind of float towards a corner to reference whatever happens after we die. And then I was thinking about psychological space, and "to the north" referencing the brain.

As far as the grouping goes, I have 15 paintings in my studio and I felt like it was just a nice rounded body of work. It was one of those conversations that I took a few more paintings, and then Rachel [Bruya] and Jody [Clowes], the curator and director of the Watrous Gallery, decided on what to show. I was very open to their response and their opinion on the editing process. The cake painting that we talked about, that was from 2013, and then there was a painting I just finished four months ago, so most of them are a current body of work that I've been working on for two, three, four years, if not even longer, and I think these are a small series within the larger series.

There's one painting that I wanted to show and it's called "Ghost Rider." It was sort of an exploding bike. Some people don't see the bike, but it was. in response to my time in Madison. I was in Madison for three years to get my MFA from UW-Madison, and I commuted everywhere with my bike. Basically, my car sat for three years. And the last day that I was leaving town, I loaded up the U-Haul and moved to Milwaukee, but on the way out of town, I saw a guy get hit and killed on East Washington and First Street. It was bad. I felt really bad. It was a painting in response to that. And then now I'm in Milwaukee and I don't feel comfortable on the road, because it's just not a great bike community. But I saw it as both paying homage to the gentleman that passed away, and sort of a metaphor of this moment of closing or a new chapter in my life, that move from Madison into another chapter.